June 5 is National Long-Term Survivors Day. Many of those who survived the height of the AIDS crisis are aging, and what that can mean for HIV treatment.
By Barrett White
When the virus first struck the United States, it was considered fatal. Just before the crisis began, Montrose Clinic—what Legacy was known as prior to 2005—was founded. When the crisis hit Houston, Montrose Clinic became the dedicated HIV care provider in the city, when most other places wouldn’t treat those living with the virus. As a volunteer-run organization at the time, the Clinic worked to connect patients and providers the best they could, even if for some it only meant palliative care. Those living with the virus at the time were the bravest people Clinic volunteers knew, fighting their own health battle while advocating for HIV research and acting as the chosen family for others also living with the virus.
It is without a doubt a truly wonderful sign that today, we are seeing people living with HIV live into old age. HIV no longer guarantees a progression to AIDS (or, Stage 3 HIV). While HIV researchers insist that the public remain vigilant to prevent the spread of the virus, it is no longer a death sentence. With proper and consistent care on a treatment regimen, someone living with HIV could see their viral load fall to undetectable status, preventing a sexual partner from seroconverting or acquiring the virus.
With the medical advancements in HIV treatment at our disposal today, we are seeing people living with HIV reach old age, but with this comes new hurdles. “[People living with HIV for a long time] may have developed resistance to multiple antiretroviral drugs and now face limited treatment options,” says Richard Wolitski of the Office of HIV/AIDS and Infectious Disease Policy at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Additionally, they may be subject to negative interactions between medications needed to control HIV and those needed for diseases associated with normal aging [such as heart disease]. They may also have been out of the workforce during key periods of their young adult lives, and, as a result, be unemployed or underemployed and facing poverty in retirement.”
Ensuring the good health of long-term survivors means not only keeping them on their antiretroviral regimens, but taking into consideration all determinants of health that may be affecting their overall wellbeing, which may be tied to fighting HIV in the early days of the crisis.
Amy Leonard is the VP of Public Health Services at Legacy Community Health. “I’ve worked in the field of HIV prevention and care for over 30 years, and have lost many friends and colleagues to this virus,” Leonard says. “I’ve continued to work with long-term survivors, and on this day it’s important to recognize those who have continued to advocate for others while they’ve been living through their own personal battles. We need to recognize their courage, and the impact and the toll that it takes on them to do that, and to fight this fight.”
Legacy provides free HIV testing to those most at-risk, as well as comprehensive HIV/AIDS primary health care services, vision care, case management, medication adherence counseling, educational workshops, financial assistance, and wellness services. To learn more about Legacy’s HIV testing, prevention (PrEP Rx), and treatment services, or to make an appointment with a Legacy provider, click here.
Photo: LGBTQ activists hold a vigil, c. 1978. Photo courtesy JD Doyle.